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Torah Sparks

September 12, 2009 – 23 Elul 5769

Annual: Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30 (Etz Hayim, p. 1165; Hertz p. 878)
Triennial Cycle: Deuteronomy 30:1 – 31:6 (Etz Hayim, p. 1169; Hertz p. 880)
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 1180; Hertz p. 883)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

As according to tradition Moses speaks to the people on the last day of his life, he reminds them that they are entering into a covenant with God and that those who violate that covenant will be severely punished.

Moses also tells them that even as God punishes their disobedience He will not abandon them. When they learn from what has happened to them and return to God in repentance, God will welcome them lovingly and bring them back from their exile.

Moses encourages the people, telling them that God’s commandments are not too difficult or beyond reach. Rather, they are very close, so that every Jew has the ability to observe them.

Moses concludes: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – if you and your offspring would live.”

Moses then tells the people that it is now time for Joshua to succeed him. They should not be afraid, because God will continue to be with them as they conquer the Canaanites, just as they already conquered the Amorites. Moses then charges Joshua in the sight of all Israel.

Moses writes down the Torah (or, perhaps, parts of Sefer D’varim) and gives it to the priests and the elders. He tells them that every seventh year they are to assemble the people on Sukkot and read the Torah to them.

God calls to Moses and tells him it is almost time for him to die. God instructs Moses to bring Joshua to the tent of meeting to hear God’s instructions. God tells Moses that in the future the people will break the covenant and turn to alien gods, so that God will become angry and “hide His countenance” from them.

Therefore, Moses is to write down a poem (found in Ha-azinu) and teach it to the people. It will remind them of God’s promise and their disloyalty and prompt them to repent.

1. Turn, Turn, Turn

You, however, will again heed the Lord and obey all His commandments that I enjoin upon you this day. [Literally, You will return and obey the voice of the Lord...] (Deuteronomy 30:8)

  1. “You will return and obey the voice of the Lord.” Earlier (30:2) the Torah says, “You will return to the Lord your God,” which implies repentance. What, then, is the meaning of “You will return” in this verse? Rabbi Shlomo of Radomsk explained that before a person repents he does not even know what sins he has committed – he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know. Only after he first begins to repent does he begin to realize how great his sins were. Thus he begins to ascend stage by stage, and at each stage he repents all the more. The first verse, then, refers to the person when he begins to repent, while the present verse refers to him as he repents each subsequent time, as he ascends higher and higher in his spiritual development. (Rabbi Yehoshua Sheinfeld, cited in Itturei Torah, Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg)
  2. Repentance doesn’t bring a sense of serenity or of completion but stimulates a reaching out in further effort. Indeed, the power and the potential of repentance lie in increased incentive and enhanced capacity to follow the path even farther. The response is often no more than an assurance that one is in fact capable of repenting, and its efficacy lies in growing awareness, with time, that one is indeed progressing in the right path. In this manner the conditions are created in which repentance is no longer an isolated act but has become a permanent possibility, a constant process of going toward. It is a going that is both the rejection of what was once axiomatic and an acceptance of new goals. (Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, “The Thirteen Petalled Rose,” pp. 131-132)
  3. Rabbi Eliezer said: “Repent one day before your death.” His disciples asked: Does anyone know on what day he will die?” “All the more reason to repent today,” answered Rabbi Eliezer, “in case you die tomorrow, and thus a person’s whose life should be spent in repentance.” (Talmud Shabbat 153a)
  4. Our Father, bring us back to Your Torah. Our King, draw us near to Your service. Lead us back to You, truly repentant. Praised are Your, Lord who welcomes repentance. (Weekday Amidah, Siddur Sim Shalom)

Sparks for Discussion

Humash Etz Hayim notes, “The Hebrew verb meaning “return” or “repent” (shuv) occurs seven times in verses [30:]1-10” Our commentators learn from this that teshuvah (repentance) is not an event, but a process. Does this make sense to you? Why?

The very first thing we do after the conclusion of Yom Kippur, even before we take the first sip of water or bite of food, is to pray the weekday Maariv service. During the Amidah we ask for the gift of repentance. Why?

2. No Excuses

Surely this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-13)

  1. Rava said, “Set fixed times for Torah, as Avdimi bar Hana bar Dosi said, Why is it written, “It is not in the heavens... it is not beyond the sea.” “It is not in the heavens” – if it would be in heaven you would be obliged to go up after it. “It is not beyond the sea” – if it would be beyond the sea you would be obliged to cross it in pursuit. (Talmud Eruvin 54b-55a)
  2. Every Jew is required to study Torah, whether poor or rich, healthy or ailing, young or old and feeble. Even a man so poor that he is maintained by charity or goes begging from door to door, as also a man with a wife and children to support, is under the obligation to set aside a definite period during the day and night for the study of the Torah... Until what period in life is one obligated to study Torah? Until the day of one’s death. (Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1209, Spain and Egypt), Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah, 1:8,10)
  3. [The prophet] Elijah, ever mentioned on good occasions, said: Once, as I was walking on the road, a man who met me mocked and reviled me. I asked him, “My son, since you have refused to learn Torah, what will you say on the Day of Judgment?” He replied, “I have an answer: Understanding, knowledge, and spirit were not given me from Heaven [so how could I study Torah]?” I said, “My son, what is your work?” He replied, “I am a trapper of fowls and fish.” I asked, “Who gave you knowledge and spirit to take flax, spin it into cords, weave the cords into nets, use the nets to trap fish and fowls, and sell them?” He replied, “Understanding and knowledge [to do my work] were given me from Heaven.” I said, “To take flax, spin it into cords, weave cords into nets, and use nets to trap fish and fowls, understanding and knowledge were given to you from Heaven. But do you suppose that, for words of Torah, about which it is written, ‘The thing is very close to you’ (30:14), understanding and knowledge were not given to you?” (Tanhuma, Va-Yeilekh, 2)
  4. Hillel said: Do not say, “I shall study when I have leisure.” Perhaps you will never have leisure. (Pirkei Avot 2:4)
  5. These are the things whose fruits a person eats in this world while the capital remains for him in the world to come: honoring one’s parents, the practice of loving-kindness, hospitality to strangers, and making peace between a person and his neighbor. And the study of Torah surpasses them all. (Mishnah Peah 1:1)

Sparks for Discussion

How would you define Torah study? What texts and topics are included within “Torah”? Our commentators insist that there are no excuses for neglecting Torah study. Do you agree? How might you respond to someone who claims that he would like to study Torah, but it just isn’t possible? What is the goal of Torah study? Why do you think the Rabbis consider Torah study the preeminent mitzvah?

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